INTERVIEW: Jordan Cunningham talks Jamie, West Side Story & the importance of theatre

Jordan Cunningham is an incredibly dynamic and versatile performer with an impressive list of credits to his name. He was part of the Original Cast of Olivier nominated musical Everybody’s Talking About Jamie and has recently starred in The Royal Exchange Theatre’s phenomenally successful re-imagining of West Side Story. He will shortly be embarking on the UK tour of Priscilla Queen of the Desert.

Jordan is currently enjoying some well deserved down time as he prepares to head back out on tour and took some time out to chat to us about Jamie, West Side Story and why he thinks theatre is so important, now more than ever.

You were part of the original West End cast of Everybody’s Talking About Jamie which has been a huge success. What is it about the show that you think resonates with so many people?

I think its LGBTQ values have really touched a lot of people. In a way, and I hate to use this word, its normalised issues in regards to homosexuality and being who you want to be. It promotes the message that it is absolutely OK to be who you are no matter how unique and unusual that may be. Lots of people have a ‘thing’ that they are scared to reveal to the world and I think the show helps to give people the confidence and motivation to go out there to express themselves how they want to and ultimately say – “hey this is me”.

Congratulations on the success of the recent production of West Side Story. How did it feel working on one of the first re-imagined productions since the rights were relaxed?

Thank you so much! I was excited and nervous, but only because I had done the original Jerome Robbins choreography back in 2016 at Kilworth House. Having loved the iconic choreography for so long I must admit I entered the rehearsal room with a bit of trepidation. During the rehearsal process it took me a long time to understand the choreographer’s choices and the changes that she had made. Over time, and particularly once it was put in to the rehearsal space and ultimately the round of the Royal Exchange it kind of lifted the veil and I finally understood where the choreographer and director were coming from. I actually don’t think it would have read as well in traditional theatres as the Exchange is a very immersive space with the actors so close to the audience. Without that intimacy it wouldn’t have been possible to see the characters choices develop, which I think the choreography really highlighted.

Were you prepared for just how successful it was going to be?

West Side Story is such an iconic musical and close to so many people’s hearts, so that definitely heightened the nerves. As we came into the previews we really didn’t know how people would receive it. We thought it might be a bit like marmite and they would either love it or hate it. Once the amazing reviews started coming things just came together really quickly and we knew that we had created something very special. A lot of people have actually said they prefer this production because of the modernisation. It’s messages are more reflective of today’s society which I think helped audiences connect with on a different level to the more traditional versions. I genuinely came away from the whole process thinking wow I have literally learned so much.

You will shortly be joining the new UK tour of Priscilla Queen of the Desert. How do you generally prepare for a role?

I write everything out! I have this book that if you read it, looks like a mad mans writings. It’s got every single monologue, song, script that I have ever had to learn. It’s actually how I learn lines. I write them out and don’t carry on with the sentence until I have learnt the words. In Priscilla I am understudying Miss Understanding and Felicia. Felicia in particular has a lot of dialogue. I tend to focus on the biggest challenge first and get that nailed because I like to walk into the rehearsal space having a strong foundation and knowing exactly what the lines are. Although primarily my role is ensemble and dancing and generally mincing about in a pair of heels! I much prefer to not be constantly looking at my script as I am being directed so I can focus on making the choices as an actor and as a dancer, giving me more time to experiment and see what works and what doesn’t. My worst fear is going into a rehearsal room unprepared or not completely sure of what I am doing. I’ve had nightmares about that!

What about in terms of physically preparing for the tour?

I have been going to the gym which is a huge drag because it’s not something that I naturally enjoy, but I am conscious that I am going to be rather scantily clad for much of the show so I need to be in good physical shape. Lots of core work as well because walking in heels is an art form in itself. People really underestimate how hard it is! For a boy to be walking on heels you have to take into account different weight placement and because of that there are special heels for drag queens. It’s also about learning how to dance in heels, which I learnt a lot from in Jamie. You almost have to retrain your body because the weight distribution and movements are completely different. I got given my Young Loco heels from Jamie’s Head of Wardrobe so I actually wore them for the Priscilla audition. They are in my bedroom so sometimes I slip them on and strut around the house, to help prepare!

With so much media pressure on body image how has the process been for you getting comfortable with being scantily clad on stage?

I have always been in relatively good shape, so for me it’s more about my skin as I have eczema and if I get stressed I can have a really bad flare up. So for example if it’s on my legs there is that anxiety of going oh my god I’ve got this scarring on my legs and I’m now going to be in a jock strap and a pair of heels on stage. But it’s kind of one of those things where as an actor you just have to let it go because if you don’t you will just fall apart. From a stage perspective the front row is so far away that they are really not going to notice things like that but obviously it’s hard because it’s your own insecurity and you put a microscope on all of your imperfections. There is such a demand for the perfect aesthetic image that what you see on stage, the six packs, the muscles, the firm bums and boobs are driven from insecurity in some way shape or form.

Which of your roles was the most challenging for you to capture? And how did you overcome it?

Probably understudying Jamie and having such a short space of time to prepare. I had been doing the show for about 8 months when they asked me cover it. They gave me about 3 weeks rehearsal time, very split apart before I had to do the full thing, so I didn’t get a lot of time to prepare and it’s such a demanding role. I actually think it’s one of the most demanding roles on the West End right now because the character is only off stage for two of the scenes and there are so many lines! He also goes on such a journey and I think to be able to authenticate and communicate that journey to an audience where it truly touches them is a huge challenge. There’s a very fine line with a character like Jamie because if you pitch it wrong he can very easily become annoying and camp which can grind on people. The truth and vulnerability that is so crucial to the portrayal of Jamie is very difficult to find naturally unless you have had that time to delve into the character.

You’ve been a very vocal advocate and committed to championing diverse casting within the musical theatre industry. What do you think the industry can do to improve in this area?

I think compared to two/three years ago there has been a significant improvement and I’m really enjoying seeing more and more productions promoting diverse casting. I think there is still room for improvement because diversity is more than just black. Diversity is Hispanic and Chinese and Indian… I could literally go on and on. For example, in terms of mainstream theatre I think Jamie is the only show that has a supporting role with a girl in a hijab. I literally just saw A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Bridge Theatre, a production full of wonderfully diverse ethnicities and I don’t think it affected the piece in any detrimental way at all.

I would love to see a musical like Oklahoma! A Rogers and Hammerstein, or a Sondheim where the entire cast is a range and blend of all ethnicities and walks of life. There are also so many talented people out there of Asian decent that I am still not really seeing unless it’s a musical where race is intrinsic to the plot like Bend it like Beckham. I just want to see people winning roles purely based on merit and the truth they can bring to that character. I mean obviously there are those roles where it wouldn’t be possible but it would be nice to see a bit more flexibility and imagination.

If you could change just one thing about the industry with the wave of a magic wand, what would it be?

I would change the rates of pay! Ensemble performers on Broadway earn double what their West End counterparts do. Traditionally the pay in musical theatre is not great unless there is a celebrity casting – in which case that is usually where the money goes. It’s frustrating because what we do is really demanding and we have trained and developed our skills for three years at college and to not have that reflected in our salaries is hard. Yes, pay. Pay us more!

Why do you think theatre is so important to people?

I think it’s a form of escapism, which I think is really important in today’s society. With what’s going on in the world it’s a great way, especially with something like Priscilla or Kinky Boots, to just get lost in a light-hearted fun show for a couple of hours. Shows like Jamie and Company are also a reflection of people’s real lives, which makes them important. I was recently at the Crazy Coqs watching Luke Bayer in concert and one of the fans of the show came up to me and said that Jamie had changed her life. That’s actually quite a dramatic statement for me to hear, because no show (with the exception of The Inheritance) has ever had that kind of effect on me. She felt so different and the show helped her feel like she could be accepted for who she was. In that instance the power of theatre really advocated that for her. I think if theatre connects with you on a personal level it can be so powerful, cathartic and life-affirming, whilst at the same time educating you on issues you wouldn’t usually come across.

How and when did you start believing in your own work and talent?

Only very recently! Probably during Jamie, and particularly as I was about to leave the show and start auditioning again. I remember coming out of one audition thinking my goodness this is the first time I have walked into a room and delivered something where I have felt completely self-assured and not nervous or doubtful of my own ability. It was the first time I had not gone in and instantly compared myself to other people and downed myself because that person had a better body or more credits or sounded better than me. I think I reached that point because I had worked so hard to exorcise all those demons and insecurities.

Jamie taught me so much about myself as a person and a performer because we were given so many incredible opportunities that made me regularly challenge myself taking me way outside my comfort zone. Things like attending the Olivier’s, performing on television, the live cinema screening and the original cast recording forced me to learn new skills and I feel like I learned more during that period of my life than I did in three years of college. That in part is thanks to working with some incredibly talented and experienced performers including Josie Walker, Shobna Gulati and Michele Visage who imparted lots of wisdom and advice. Watching them work and learning from them was a real gift.

What was the last thing you saw at the theatre and what do you wish you had seen but missed?

The last thing I saw was A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Bridge Theatre. I wish I had seen Lady Day at the Wyndham’s Theatre with Audra McDonald where she played Billie Holiday – I love Audra MacDonald so much!

We then asked Jordan some Dress Circle Antics quick fire questions…

Sondheim or Lloyd Webber – Sondheim

Broadway or West End – Broadway

Who would play you in the story of your life – Darren Criss

Dream Role – I don’t actually have a dream role but I would absolutely love to workshop and originate a part. Actually I would LOVE to play Bobbie in Company

Favourite musical number – Dance at the Gym (Mambo), West Side Story

Go to audition song – All of Me, John Legend

Favourite musical – Bonnie and Clyde

Your inspiration growing up – Neil Patrick Harris

Tell us something no one knows about you – I have a peanut allergy

The UK Tour of Priscilla Queen of the Desert kicks off at the Dartford Orchard Theatre on the 5th September 2019!

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